- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Michael Phelps is guilty of being 23 years old and excessively wealthy and famous after winning eight gold medals in the Beijing Games in August.

That hardly qualifies him as a role model, although America inevitably confers that responsibility on celebrities in sports and the entertainment industry.

Most go along with it because that is how the cynical public relations game is played. Charles Barkley remains an honorable exception. The former NBA star long ago railed against America anointing the famous as role models.

A person who is accomplished in a particular field may be utterly lacking in all other areas of life - in comportment, humanity and personal ideology. Expertise in one area does not transfer to expertise in all areas.

You would not call a highly successful plumber to fill out your tax returns, no more than you would ask a Hollywood actor to draft a foreign-policy manifesto. Strike the last part of the previous sentence. Reading someone else’s lines apparently leads to the unearthing of vast truths on the human condition.

The reaction to the picture showing Phelps with a marijuana bong glued to his face is predictable. He has let down his legion of fans, not to mention his sponsors and family. He will have to make amends with them. He already has issued a public apology and managed to get out in front of the fallout.

That, too, is how the public relations game is played. None of this really should come as a surprise to anyone and not just because Phelps has a frat-boy reputation that includes a DUI charge from November 2004.

He may be the greatest Olympian ever, a marvel in the water, but he is a number of years removed from being a full-fledged adult. A man. The latter is partly because of his time-consuming pursuit and a society all too willing to give 20-something slackers the time to find themselves. It is true - 31 is the new 21.

Phelps has spent much of life in a chlorinated pool, his mood determined by the reading of a stopwatch. While his peers may have been hanging out at shopping malls or whooping it up at parties on a regular basis, Phelps was dedicated to the monastic lifestyle of his sport. His real-life experience is negligible. You can tell by the photograph.

In the age of digital photography, when everyone with an iPhone is a potential paparazzo, Phelps exercised no judgment. If he is inclined to take up with the cannabis plant, he would be wise to do it in a safe room with the lights out.

His sponsors and agents have probably already made that point to him. They can tolerate the partaking of an illegal substance that a significant portion of America has tried. What they cannot tolerate is Phelps inhaling around those with the technology to expose it.

As it is, the moral outrage coming his way is out of place. Phelps is no role model. That mistake is on America. Phelps merely has played lip service to being a role model because that is what you are obligated to do. It also sounds good if you are trying to woo sponsors, as was the case with Phelps in Beijing.

He was an aquatic Superman in those heady days, the erstwhile dork who inherited the acclaim of the world.

Now he is just another wayward young adult who could be facing criminal charges in Columbia, S.C., where the photograph was snapped at a house party in November. The last thing a sponsor wants is a pitchman facing the prospect of 30 days in jail.

Phelps has three more years to kill before the London Games in 2012. The picture of his face pressed against a glass pipe will be part of his narrative then.

Until then, Phelps cannot return to the pool soon enough. The world is a whole lot more simpler in a pool.

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